Miliband reminds us how Thatcher inspired him

"She moved the centre ground of British politics," the Labour leader said. He is trying to achieve the same feat today.

Ed Miliband's dignified and well-crafted statement on Margaret Thatcher's death reminded us of the inspiration he took from the former prime minister. As he pointedly noted, "She moved the centre ground of British politics". Today, Miliband is attempting to achieve something similar. Labour, he has declared, must seek not just to just to return to power in 2015 but to make its values and ideas the "common sense of our age". Just as Thatcher rejected the decades-long postwar consensus, so Miliband has rejected the consensus established by her government and faithfully adhered to by every prime minister since. Like her, he aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. 

Despite the huge majorities won by Labour in 1997 and 2001, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued to view Britain as a fundamentally conservative country. By contrast, Miliband believes, as his chief strategist Stewart Wood put it today (in reference to Thatcher), that "real change inspired by values" is possible. He has rejected, for instance, the Blairite notion that it is neither possible nor desirable for the state to seek to reduce inequality. As he declared in his speech at last year's Labour conference, "I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters.". Here, too, the parallels with Thatcher are striking. "The Old Testament prophets did not say, 'Brothers, I want a consensus,'" she once remarked. "They said, 'This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it, too, then come with me'". 

There remains a notable gap between the boldness of Miliband's rhetoric and the relative timidity of his policy proposals. Reintroducing the 10p tax rate and requiring public sector contractors to pay the living wage will hardly have the transformative effect that Thatcher's measures did. The ambition, however, is admirable. As Miliband's advisers are fond of pointing out, the word "privatisation" does not appear in the 1979 Conservative manifesto. In time, they suggest, greater radicalism will come. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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